The above words were spoken by Rennie Harris, choreographer, regarding Lazarus, a work that he created in 2019 for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.[i] Harris describes the work as being “about the idea of the spirit reincarnating itself into a different existence.”[ii]
I live and work in field of arts and culture, in the practice of evaluation, research and funding. Our field is made up of artists as well as the many cultural workers and facilities that support artistic practice and the sharing of art with communities and audiences. The artists I respect most have similar goals as CREA. They bend over backwards to tell truths and reveal realities. They explore intersections and clashes of ideas. They ask questions about what we believe, and why we believe it.
At its best, art reveals meaning. At their best, artists are the seers, who are trained to observe, in culturally relevant ways. In art, meanings are often coded in different ways – through sound and image, movement and gesture, words and poems, action and character. One such artist is Rennie Harris, an acclaimed hip-hop dancer and choreographer who once stated that he learned to dance in his Northern Philadelphia backyard and has since been awarded several honorary doctorates. In his hour-long piece Lazarus,[iii] Harris explores the life and struggles of Alvin Ailey, taking us via sounds and movement imagery, through the Middle Passage, slavery, and the Civil Rights era; the work reveals why it is a near miracle that a company founded by a Black man in 1958 could become the largest and most visible modern dance company in the United States, and asks why many of the struggles that Ailey encountered in his lifetime persist today. Neither all of the bar graphs in the world, nor my words here, could enlighten us to the truths that Harris, and other artists working at the deepest levels, reveal.
Originally, I envisioned writing a blog post to introduce the CREA community to the arts field and the cruciality of CRE methods in effectively evaluating arts programs. But given the COVID-19 pandemic, the current chapter is more relevant than the full story: my field is being decimated by COVID-19 and its economic fallout.
As CREA asserts, I begin with context. A large segment of the arts field–-artists, managers, administrators, performers—work as contractors for little or even no pay. At this moment, performing artists have worked and incurred costs, sometimes over years, to create performances that were all cancelled. Six months of performances essentially disappeared overnight. On top of that, many artists’ day jobs are as food servers, yoga instructors, massage therapists, and arts instructors—all of which ended overnight. (A small percentage work as adjunct faculty and a tiny percentage have university jobs and create and present their artwork on the side.) The sum total is that most performing artists, from actors, to dancers to musicians, directors, stage technicians and others, lost all of their income. Through its open national survey (n=17,300 as of this writing) Americans for the Arts (AFTA) reports on the severity of the pandemic on artists/creatives: “62% have become fully unemployed, standing to lose $50.6 billion in income in 2020,” and yet “76% report their artistic practice has been used to raise morale, create community cohesion, or lighten the COVID-19 experience of the community.”[iv] Many of the online videos that are being created and shared are made by such artists, who are sharing their creative talents for free.
Arts organizations are suffering deeply as well. High-paying jobs are few and far between, and the segment of nonprofit managers, leaders and support staff that have jobs receive lower than average pay and are facing layoffs or staff reductions. AFTA’s open survey also reports that arts organizations (as of this writing n=13,812) face an estimated loss of $5 billion in economic impact, and nearly 208 million admissions, resulting in $6.6 billion loss in event-related spending by audiences in their communities, and 1.3 million in laid off or furloughed staff. “And yet, 68% are delivering artistic content to raise community spirits and morale.”[v]
Given the sensitivities about maintaining physical distance and touch in general, which we anticipate will continue well beyond when businesses officially open back up, we have no idea when or how life will resume or change. Some organizations will go out of business. Artists and administrators will remain unemployed. And that is before the deaths of artists, particularly elders of color.
My firm runs Dance/USA Fellowships to Artists(DFA), a national funding program that, with funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, supports artists dedicated to social practice, many of whom who work with communities that have been deeply affected by the pandemic, including immigrants, the homeless, people of color, disabled people, transgender people and women being trafficked. Working at the national level means navigating the constant barrage of information and directives from government and private sources, including efforts to try to ensure that contractors, including artists, were included in the Federal stimulus packages. Massive advocacy efforts by artists, arts organizations and others influenced initial legislation, when contractors, including artists, qualified for unemployment for the first time in history. That was the good news. But applying for this relief has proven to be a long, arduous process with looming questions about how the legislation is being implemented. Resource lists circulate like wildfire. Many smaller arts organizations and independent artists find themselves either left out of the possibilities or overwhelmed, among the high numbers of applications.
With the support of, and swift action by foundations, organizations and individuals, artist relief funds were set up and bombarded with applications. Some were drained quickly, others replenished, and others staged so that relief could be distributed over time. Many foundations relaxed their requirements of grantees, so that funds could be used as needed for general operating rather than for projects that could no longer be completed.
CREA also tells us that numbers, as above, are important to capture, but that it is in disaggregating the numbers and considering nuance and context, where truths lie. In their aggregation of numbers, the many surveys that are being conducted to assess the impact of COVID-19 on artists may hide critical findings about a loss of this magnitude. In his article “Has Anyone Asked Artists What They Need?” choreographer and director Raja Feather Kelly did informal research with 10 peer artists, via text message, and writes that the organizations that cancelled performances have not contacted him nor his peers personally, offering the impression that the exchange was about a gig, not a human relationship.[vi] I have heard this theme repeated by other artists. And yet, from attending weekly meetings with arts administrators who run the organizations that present artists, I also know that their leaders, too, are in living under a dark cloud of the unknown, including when or if their facilities will open in 2020, how they will pay for staff and maintenance, and what life will be like when they do. While they are writing and re-writing “scenarios” of skeletal budgets and draconian staff cuts, like many, they’re also home schooling children and sheltering in place. Performing and visual art facilities on college campuses are now waiting for the other shoe to drop as budgets are soon to be handed down from administration. Smaller neighborhood theaters, studios and galleries—many located off the beaten track in warehouses, churches, and social service agencies—lack cash reserves, ask for donations and maybe apply for SBA paycheck protection.
Yet, in keeping with their true spirit of experimentation and sharing, some artists, as well as some of the facilities dedicated to supporting them, are responding and rising up. Collaborations are brewing and movements are starting. Creating New Futures, a new collaboration among artists, managers and presenters, is creating a “living document” that frames guidelines for conversations within the dance and performance field to “shape our futures in light of the extraordinary chaos and disruption caused by COVID-19.” The organizers state that they are looking “beyond the present moment to address longstanding inequities, deficiencies, and power imbalances in the field, which directly reflect the structures of the broader culture … [and] call for radical action.” In May, a virtual national dialogue about the document, beautifully moderated by artist and community organizer Maria Bauman-Morales, cofounder of ACRE (Artists Co-creating Real Equity), credited the work of ancestors and draws from the practices of labor movements.
The DFA fellows meet virtually weekly to check in, share life experiences and challenges and successes, and simply be present for each other. Choreographer and film maker Amara Tabor-Smith hands out personal protective equipment to women being trafficked in the Bay Area and posted a work-in-progress video and song that she and collaborators of House/Full of Blackwomen created in honor of the national rent strike. With his band Pamyua and KYUK radio station, Yup’ik and African American musician and dance artist Qacung Yufrican created Tarvarnauramken: Blessings in a Time of Crisis, based on their recording of a well-known traditional song, as dancers from sites around Alaska interpret it, conveying the movement that is shared among members of his cultures, across distance and time. Pilipinx artist Alleluia Panis has created Ritwal sa Baibai as a “dance meditation/prayer/ritual to honor, to awaken, to embody ancestral ways of knowing” in this time of crisis. Each of these works, like thousands of others from creative artists, was created in recent weeks, with limited resources, to provide healing and comfort. But not all artists can create in these times—nor should they be expected to do so, given the creative and emotional labor, let alone resources, required.
The Alvin Ailey company has created an online, socially distant excerpt of its work Lazarus. Choreographer Harris stated in 2019, “When you see it you have to think about what’s going on today. And when you witness it, you are now responsible.”[vii] Like his work, Harris’s words were prescient. In this time of a pandemic, artists are urging us to join them—to see, to hear, and to witness them differently and act to support them. They are essential. The question that remains is if and how we will address the inequitable systems that got us here.
Author: Suzanne Callahan, Founder, Callahan Consulting for the Arts www.ForTheArts.org
[i] “All Things Considered,” NPR February 17, 2019 https://www.npr.org/2019/02/17/695552120/alvin-ailey-american-dance-theater-debuts-lazarus-to-celebrate-60th-anniversary. Accessed May 16, 2020.
[ii] “Rennie Harris on Creating Lazarus,” Sadler’s Wells Theatre, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9Z_v30OStE. Accessed May 15, 2020
[iii] Presumably a Biblical reference to Lazarus, a follower of Jesus who was raised from the dead.
[iv] “COVID-19’s Impact on the Arts Research Update.” American for the Arts, May 11, 2020. Accessed May 16, 2020 https://www.americansforthearts.org/node/103614.
[vi] « Has Anyone Asked Artists What They Need ? » Dance Magazine, May 2011, 2020. https://www.dancemagazine.com/support-artists-2645970673.html?xrs=RebelMouse_fb&ts=1589372022&fbclid=IwAR2_xiitW5rCQKocBZywJv1LJPRlt1mwponM3kbK5FYfy7AIB2H5CQsXhSg. Accessed May 15, 2020.
[vii] “ATC,” NPR, Rennie Harris, February 17, 2019.